Saturday, April 29, 2006


I've killed two birds with one stone by watching this movie: 1) I now know a little something about Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, at least the Hollywood version, and 2) I've finally seen a Randolph Scott western--something I've needed to do since I heard the hymn to Randolph Scott in BLAZING SADDLES. This was actually one of Scott's first westerns (they didn't become his bread and butter until the 50s), and probably a low-budgeted B-film at that, but it looks fine and Scott makes a good western hero. Here he plays Wyatt Earp, ex-Army Scout, who, after being shanghaied and beaten by a gang of bandits, becomes marshal in Tombstone, Arizona, a town of infamous lawlessness. Once he has his badge, Earp opens up his tin of whoop-ass and cleans up the town, earning the ire of John Carradine, saloon owner and head of the bandit group. When Doc Holliday (for some reason called Halliday in this film, played by Cesar Romero), an asthmatic loner and known ass-whooper, comes through town, he and Earp bond and together become targets for the bandits. It wouldn't be a real western without some women to cause trouble, and here there are two: Binnie Barnes as a whore with a hankering for Holliday, and Nancy Kelly as the nice girl from Holliday's past who poses a threat to Barnes. In this version of the O.K. Corral story, a bartender's boy is accidentally hit during a shootout, the Doc operates on him in the saloon and saves his life, then is killed, ambushed as he leaves the saloon; Earp single-handedly brings the rest of the gang to justice. In the last scene, Barnes, seeing her Palace of Pleasure turned into a bank as Tombstone goes legit, decides it's time to leave.

Scott and Kelly are good, but Romero is excellent as the gruff, sickly doctor; he does a nice job doing something different from his usual robust Latin lover. He looks a little too healthy for most of the film's running time, but he is convincing when he has his coughing fits. Barnes barely hides her British accent but is otherwise fine, and there are some familiar supporting faces in small roles, including Eddie Foy Jr. playing his own father, an entertainer who actually did play in Tombstone; Joe Sawyer and Lon Chaney Jr. as bandits; Ward Bond as the marshal in the beginning of the film who is too cowardly to do his job; and Charles Stevens as a crazed drunken Indian. Short and apparently (based on a quick Google search) not factual at all, but still a fun movie. It was based on a 1930s book about Earp and was remade later by John Ford as MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (which I'll watch if Fox shows it soon). [FCM]

Tuesday, April 25, 2006


I've probably said this before, but I'm not a Greta Garbo fan. She always seems to be **Acting** and I rarely feel that she's playing a rounded character. This film, often mentioned as one of her best, didn't change my overall opinion of her, but it is a good film, and she gives a solid performance. In 1632, during the 30 Years War, Sweden's King Gustavus dies in battle and his five-year-old daughter is made queen. When she grows up (to be Garbo), she proves to be a strong and independent ruler looking to settle for peace rather than continue with war, but her Chancellor (Lewis Stone) feels that her ideas are too utopian. She refuses to marry her princely cousin (Reginald Owen) who has been chosen for her and she carries on an unsatisfying affair with the Lord Treasurer (Ian Keith). Beset by troubles, Garbo escapes by going forth amongst her people dressed like a man and on one such trip, she meets up at a roadside inn with a Spanish diplomat (John Gilbert) on his way to visit the Queen, whom he has never met. The two hit it off and wind up having to share a room overnight. Clearly, Gilbert feels an ambiguous tug of sexual desire (I was reminded of James Garner and Julie Andrews in VICTOR/VICTORIA but with a bit more heat), and when she has to undress to share his bed, the game is up and the two spend three snowbound days together in the room. This leads to a famous scene in which Garbo languidly walks about the room, touching and caressing the walls, the bed, the furniture, saying she's trying to memorize everything about their tryst. When Gilbert is brought before the queen a few days later, carrying a marriage proposal from the King of Spain, he is shocked to discover her identity, but they carry on their fling. Egged on by Keith, the people express irritation that Garbo refuses to make a politically expedient marriage and instead seems content dallying with her lover. Tired of being primarily a symbol to her people, she decides to send Gilbert away, give up the throne, and join him in exile, but the jealous Keith, after essentially kidnapping Gilbert, challenges him to a duel. Gilbert is mortally wounded and Garbo is present for his last breath. Despite his death, she sails on for Spain alone, leading to another famous moment, a long tracking shot in on Garbo's face as she stands nearly expressionless in the wind, like a human figurehead on the ship.

It took me a while to warm to Garbo; in the beginning, she plays the Queen with a slightly distracted air, like almost every other part she plays, but when Gilbert (an ex-lover of hers in real life) enters the scene, she more fully inhabits the character. Gilbert, on a downward career spiral after having been a big romantic star in the silents, is good here, if a bit lightweight at times, though I was very impressed with his initial scenes with Garbo at the inn when he's not sure what he's feeling for this interesting person. Elizabeth Young plays Garbo's favorite countess at court; they have a full-mouth kiss that some viewers have taken as code for an expression of bisexuality on the Queen's part, but in the absence of any other corroborating plot points, I'm not so sure. At any rate, the scene is a little startling. C. Aubrey Smith and David Torrence are in the supporting cast. Directed by Rouben Mamoulian, the movie always looks great (sets, costumes, camerawork), though I can't help but wonder how over-the-top a version by SCARLET EMPRESS director Josef von Sternberg would have been. [TCM]

Saturday, April 22, 2006

TEOREMA (1968)

This film by gay Marxist Pier Paolo Pasolini has been read as being about the rotting away of the bourgeois family, or about the connections between passion and religion, but I think it's really about Terence Stamp's crotch, which gets as much screen time, if not more, than any individual character. There are worse things to spend 90 minutes on than looking at the lovely young Mr. Stamp and his crotch, but I could have done with a little more fleshing out of characters in the narrative, and a little less deliberate obscurity in the allegorical structure. The plot outline, shared by the later Stephen Sondheim film SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE, is solid: a middle-class family welcomes an outsider (Stamp) into their home; one by one, each member (mother, father, son, daughter, maid) is seduced by him, though it's more to the point to say that he is simply the passive object of desire and that each family member becomes consumed by desire for him and acts on that desire with very little actual prodding by Stamp. Suddenly, Stamp is called away by telegram, leaving each family member to deal with his absence. The son is driven to create his own style of art which involves urinating on his canvasses as he tries to recreate the precise shade of Stamp's glowing blue eyes. The mother (Silvana Mangano) has meaningless sex with anonymous partners who look like Stamp and the daughter goes catatonic. The maid (Laura Betti) becomes a odd sort of prophet, able to heal and levitate; when we last see her, she is being buried alive (by Pasolini's mother in a cameo role) with only her mouth visible. Finally, the father (Massimo Girotti, the lead stud twenty years earlier in Visconti's OSSESSIONE, gives his factory up to his workers and in the last shot of the film is wandering naked and screaming in the wilderness. The first half with Stamp languidly romping from bedroom to bedroom actually becomes rather boring; the second half, with the family members imploding, is more interesting, but would be even better if so many details of the narrative weren't so willfully obscure. The lack of specific character and narrative details allows wide-open interpretation but also lets a viewer off the hook by allowing him or her to claim that so much muddiness can only amount to nothing. (After I wrote the first draft of this review, I discovered that Slant Magazine's Dan Callahan has also noticed the focus on Stamp's private parts, and he attributes it to Pasolini's own desires and fetishes.) For what it's worth, the title is Italian for "theorem," which means a proposition which is demonstrated to be true. [DVD]

Friday, April 21, 2006


No one seems to like this forgotten Hollywood epic and it's certainly no DeMille film, but as a quick and dirty re-telling of the ancient myth of the Trojan War (based at least in part on Homer's Iliad), it suffices: it's fun, it has a lovely leading man, and from most accounts, it's more entertaining than the recent TROY. Priam, King of Troy (Cedric Hardwicke) is pleased that his city is now so well protected with its theoretically impenetrable wall and decides the time is right to send Paris (Jack Sernas) to Sparta for diplomatic talks. During a storm at sea, Paris's ship is destroyed and he is washed up on shore, to be found and cared for by Helen (Rossana Podesta). Though she is the Queen of Sparta, she pretends at first to be just a common slave girl and the two fall in love. When Paris presents himself at court, he learns Helen's real identity but he cannot prove his own identity because all of his credentials were lost at sea. When he kicks Ajax's ass during a staged fight, they believe him, however, Meneleus (Niall MacGinnis), husband of Helen, realizes that the two have hit it off so he imprisons Paris. Helen helps him escape to a waiting ship and winds up jumping into the sea with him. Her leaving is framed as an abduction and unites the various Greek rulers and warriors (including such familiar names as Achilles and Ulysses) against Troy, triggering a prolonged war, theoretically to get the Queen of Sparta back, but also to loot the city. After years of stalemate, the Greeks seem to retreat, leaving a giant wooden horse as a gift; as we all know, the horse is full of soldiers who bide their time while the Trojans hold a celebratory orgy. In the dark of night, the soldiers break out of the horse and whoop the Trojans but good. The sets, costumes, and use of extras are the best things about the movie, directed with a sure hand for the Cinemascope screen by Robert Wise. Podesta is attractive, but I never believed that her face would launch a thousand ships. Sernas (later in his career billed as Jacques rather than Jack) is quite beautiful, prettier than Podesta, which made the movie very watchable for me. The legendary Greeks, played by decent actors who look too old and/or out of shape, such as Stanley Baker and Torin Thatcher, were largely interchangeable (though, of course, we spend most of the movie waiting for the obligatory Achilles' heel moment). The Trojan Horse orgy reminded me of the Golden Calf sequence in TEN COMMANDMENTS, and Hardwicke's presence as a ruler with conflicting feelings about his son also provided an echo of the biblical epic. The DVD is great looking and even has a couple of short background featurettes. One of the better 50's epics, easier to sit though than others of the era (like THE ROBE). [DVD]

Tuesday, April 18, 2006


This James Whale film, one of his last, is a remake of one of his earlier films, THE KISS BEFORE THE MIRROR, which I have not seen. This version, aside from some problems arising from a low production budget, is interesting and makes me want to see the original. Warren William is a bloodthirsty district attorney who keeps an abacus with little skulls on his desk to keep track of the number of people he's had sentenced to death. The opening sequence, nicely shot with lots of fluid camerawork, shows William in court at the top of his game, being threatened by the man he's just prosecuted (Matty Fain). William's wife (Gail Patrick) and secretary (Cecil Cunningham) want him to chill out and take some time off. He doesn't want to, but later, when he's shot at on the streets by Fain's cousin, he decides a nice family vacation might be in order. However, on the eve of his planned departure, a juicy murder case winds up in his lap: a rich college professor (Ralph Morgan) admits to killing his wife in a fit of jealousy, begun when he kissed his wife while she was in front of a mirror, and he caught a look in her eyes that told him she was cheating on him. William decides to stay and prosecute; he believes the man's confession but doesn't believe in crimes of passion, thinking them to be performed by weak, decadent men. Ironically, his own life begins to resemble that of Morgan: Patrick is growing upset with William's job obsession, rumors are published linking his wife to a young friend of the family (William Lundigan), and finally he sees the same "mirror" look in his wife's face that Morgan saw. William grabs a gun and seems headed down the same path as Morgan. Will he become aware of his behavior and will it give him empathy for Morgan, or will he wind up committing a crime of passion himself? The B-production values leave something to be desired, but there are several things here that make the picture worth seeing: William is good, as usual, and Morgan gives one of the best performances of his career, especially in the intense confession scene, shot mostly in one long take. Cunningham is fun, and the supporting cast includes Milburn Stone (looking a thousand years younger than he did as Doc on "Gunsmoke"), Samuel S. Hinds, and Lillian Yarbo. Whale's directorial touches are nice, with lots of shots looking down from on high. There is a dark noirish atmosphere which predates the establishment of the noir genre. Not as polished as it could be, but a rarity worth watching. [TCM]

Thursday, April 13, 2006


There is a small genre of German films from the late silent era called the mountain film. According to Wikipedia, these films focused on the adventures of mountaineers, and the overriding theme was man versus nature. A few years ago, I saw a movie called CAREFUL by art-house director Guy Maddin which was a parody of/homage to these films, but until now I'd never actually seen the real thing. This silent film, recently restored and supplied with a wonderful musical score, and co-directed by Arnold Fanck, one of the founders of the genre, is a truly beautiful and exciting film, shot on location in the Swiss Alps. In the opening segment, a honeymooning couple on Pitz Palu ("pale mountain") is caught in some nasty wind squalls and avalanches, and the woman falls to her death in a glacier crevice. The man, Dr. Krafft (Gustav Diessl), is bereft and spends all of his time on the mountain, earning the nickname "Ghost of the Mountain." Years later, an engaged couple, Hans and Maria (Ernst Petersen and Leni Riefenstahl--yes, the famous Nazi director), come to the mountain to spend some time at a cabin (where a friend flies over and drops them some champagne) and do some climbing. The two frolic in the warm sunshine but as darkness falls, Maria feels a sense of foreboding, which is heightened by the arrival of Krafft, who shares the night (and, platonically, the couple's bed). The next day, Krafft goes off to climb the north face of the mountain, with Hans and Maria joining him at the last minute. Also in the area is a group of students trying to beat Krafft. With warm winds setting up the danger of increased ice slides, a situation develops like the one on Mt. Everest that Jon Krakauer wrote about in "Into Thin Air," and sure enough, everyone (Krafft, the lovers, and the students) winds up trapped in the mountains. Most of the students are killed in an avalanche. Hans is injured when he slams into the side of the mountain and Krafft breaks his leg trying to help him; the three wind up, without suitable protection or food, stuck in a small ice cavern for three days, with Krafft standing watch, calling for help and swinging a lantern at night. The caretaker of the cabin calls on villagers to form a rescue party, but in the meantime Hans freaks out and has to be subdued, and it soon becomes clear that not all three will last until the rescue party arrives.

This was filmed on location in the Alps during an occasionally dangerous five-month shoot and the photography is indeed stunning, all the more impressive when you realize that every frame is real, with no digital effects, and not even any matte paintings in the background. I assume that the actors didn't do their own stunts, but clearly real people were clinging to ropes and getting banged around on the mountain. Riefenstahl is the most famous cast member, and gets top billing on the Kino DVD cover, but she doesn't have much to do. Far more impressive is Diessel, who, looking like a cross between Gary Cooper and John Wayne, is the very embodiment of ruggedness--he had a long film career, but died at 49. The restored DVD print is over two hours, and the middle section does feel a bit long, but mostly this film is gripping, well acted, and beautifully shot--and it doesn't hurt that both leading men are handsome! The score, written in the 90's, perfectly complements the onscreen action, and the ending is appropriately haunting. Highly recommended. [DVD]

Monday, April 10, 2006


Light romantic trifle with good performances and atmosphere which can't quite overcome a weak script. Adolphe Menjou runs the title Parisian restaurant, and he's close to running it into the ground; it's successful, but he's been borrowing restaurant money to use (and lose) in gambling, and his accountant (Christian Rub) tells him that it's crucial to get the money back within 24 hours. Tyrone Power is a broke American (whom we first at the restaurant, at closing time, drunk and insisting that he be served roasted eagle) who gambles and loses to Menjou; when Power can't make good on his debt, Menjou forces him into a scheme to "make love," in disguise as a Russian prince, to a visiting American heiress (Loretta Young), in hopes of getting money out of her. Complicating the plan: 1) her family (Charles Winninger and Helen Westley) is keeping a close eye on her, 2) Young sees through his disguise early on (thanks to his on-again, off-again accent), and 3) the real Russian prince whose identity Power is using (Gregory Ratoff) is working as a waiter at the restaurant and finds out about the ruse. There is a very amusing scene in which Winninger is arrested under suspicion of being an American gangster named Smarty Pants, but generally there is far too much time spent on complicated plot machinations at the expense of characterization. We don't get a chance to see Power and Young actually fall in love, and Power's and Menjou's characters are both so lightly sketched that it's difficult to care much about what happens to them. Still, the actors are generally delightful and this movie is further evidence that Power really should have done more comedy (see my review of DAY-TIME WIFE, below). The sets for the restaurant, the hotel rooms, and a cozy little inn where Power and Young canoodle are quite nice. "Quite nice" is an appropriate phrase for this movie; not a must, but enjoyable for an undemanding audience. [FMC]

Thursday, April 06, 2006


Tyrone Power never got much of a chance to do light romantic comedy, and based on the evidence of this movie, that's a shame because he does a fine job here. The film begins with Power, the president of a roofing company, and his wife, Linda Darnell, celebrating their second anniversary. Well, she's ready to celebrate, but he's forgotten all about it. She arranges a big party but when his secretary calls to say that Power has to work late, Darnell, with the egging-on of her friend Binnie Barnes, takes the party downtown to the office only to find the place empty except for a couple of cleaning ladies. It turns out that Power is seeing his secretary (Wendy Barrie) on the sly, so Darnell decides to find out for herself why men are so attracted to their hired help. She gets a job as secretary to a married architect (Warren William) who, sure enough, quickly puts the moves on her. Then, of course, there are some screwball touches: first, Darnell has to master the after-work quick change, from work clothes to home loungewear, so Power doesn't catch on to her secret life; later, she discovers that her boss and her husband are working together on a project so she has to do even more fancy footwork so she doesn't get caught. Eventually, of course, the bosses and the secretaries collide at a nightclub, and later that evening, at William's penthouse, his wife arrives to add to the comic confusion. The happy ending feels a little forced, not least because, thanks to the Production Code, it's never made clear how far along Power and Barrie's affair had gotten (a similar problem hampers the Cary Grant/Irene Dunne comedy THE AWFUL TRUTH), though it's clear that Darnell doesn't cheat with William. Power isn't in Grant's league as a comic actor, but very few actors are, and Power acquits himself nicely, remaining relatively sympathetic and never sliding into frantic shtick or taking attention away from the other actors. He and Darnell make a nice pair and everyone else is just fine. The sets, all huge white art deco-ish spaces, are fun and give the movie an expensive look. The best line comes from Darnell's maid (Mildred Gover): when Darnell complains about her quick changes between work and dinner and wonders how stage actresses deal with it, Gover replies, "They usually takes to drink." Fun and frothy. [FMC]

Sunday, April 02, 2006


A movie in the short-lived genre of screwball mystery; it's nowhere near as good as THE THIN MAN, mostly because it lacks actors who can pull this sort of thing off effortlessly, but this lesser-known James Whale film is still worth seeing. Robert Young and Constance Cummings (both young, rich, and good-looking) are celebrating their 6-month wedding anniversary with a "progressive" party (or galloping party, as we called it in my youth) in which they go from mansion to mansion getting drunker and more debauched, smashing glasses and bowls, setting off a cannon, swimming after midnight, and at one point, dressing up in blackface masks. The next morning, not only do they all have hangovers, they also discover that one of their number (George Meeker) is dead. Even after Young calls in an old friend, detective Edward Arnold, to investigate, more murders (and a suicide) follow. Along the way, there are implications of romantic affairs and financial problems, and a hypnotist (Gustav von Seyffertitz) comes in to try to get people to recall helpful details from their alcoholic fogs. Ultimately, it was difficult for me to care much about the overly convoluted mystery, and the comedy elements are very scattershot--sometimes they work, sometimes they don't--so I was left with plenty of time to admire the elaborate sets and interesting camerawork. Young and Cummings come off as trying too hard, but Arnold is a delight especially when he gets a chance to do some deliberately over-the-top histrionics. I also quite liked Arthur Treacher as a butler who is constantly expressing outrage over the way these rich Americans behave and speak; some critics think his performance hurts the film, and it certainly is a one-note performance (in a one-note role), but I enjoyed him. Also in the cast: Sally Eliers as the dead man's wife, Robert Armstrong as the chauffeur who may be having an affair with Eilers, Monroe Owsley (who looks a bit like Paul Reubens) and Reginald Denny as other rich revelers, and Gregory Ratoff as someone named Faronea; I never did figure out what he had to do with the proceedings. E.E. Clive, Jack La Rue and Rafaela Ottiano have small but memorable bits. Watch for a couple of fun little references to "Dracula's Daughter" and Whale's own "Bride of Frankenstein." Thanks to Turner Classic Movies for rescuing this one from the deep but neglected Universal vaults. [TCM]